After Tottenham’s inspired comeback at White Hart Lane last Thursday against Dnipro the mighty Spurs last march towards glory continues next week. Spurs will face the current leaders of the Portuguese top division, Benfica, who had a good showing in the Champions League group stage going 3-1-2 and dropping into the Europa League despite collecting ten points in a group with PSG, Olympiakos and Anderlecht.
Benfica moved past PAOK in the round of 32 and currently sit five points clear at the top of their domestic league with the league’s best defense and an impressive 16-4-1 record including an unbeaten 8-2-0 record at home. The Portuguese league is not a top league in Europe but to be sitting at the top of Portugal’s big three, including Sporting Lisbon and Porto, means they are going to be a tough team to move past into the quarterfinals of Europe’s secondary competition.
It is tough to look back to back at Benfica’s group stage matches for analysis as one of their top midfielders, Nemanja Matic, now plays for Chelsea. Instead we will look to sort out their basic tactical approach based off their home leg in the round of 32 tie against PAOK.
Benfica’s base formation is a 4-2-3-1 but they really only appear in this setup in the build up phase of play. In the defensive phase they more closely resemble a 4-4-2/4-3-1-2, depending on where on the pitch they are defending. Whenever PAOK had possession in their own half Filip Djuricic, the #10, would push up alongside the striker, Oscar Cardozo(Lima is their other main strike option, who is on 8 goals in 20 league appearances), to form the first defensive line and would look to exert light pressure on PAOK’s centerbacks. Neither of them would put pressure on the goalkeeper if a back pass was made to him, instead they would stick tight enough to the centerbacks to deny them an ability to receive a pass.
Secondly, one of the defensive mids(the 2s in the 4-2-3-1), Andre Gomes would routinely move in behind the first defensive line and pickup PAOK’s deepest midfield player. Behind him the other three midfielders would form a bank of three and look to press when the ball was played to either flank. If Djuricic or Cardozo was in a position to do so, they would exert pressure if a pass was played to their sided fullback and the other would move to that side and pickup the closest centerback.
When Benfica were forced to defend in their own half they would drop off into a more standard 4-4-2 defensive block, with Gomes now sitting alongside his holding partner, Amorim and flanked by the wide mids and Djuricic remained further forward with Cardozo. They did a solid job of controlling the middle areas of the pitch when defending and left PAOK with not much more than shots from range as their best option of attack. Their defensive line was not particularly high either, the defensive block, even when the front three were pressing, did little to invite balls over the top.
When Benfica lost possession high up the pitch they were committed to an immediate press from all of their players in the opponents half. Even saw a willingness for the centerbacks to step forward into PAOK territory to deny a counter attack developing and win the ball back. When possession was regained in this transition after losing possession Benfica looked to pounce quickly with a rapid, quick counter attack from deep in PAOK territory, not wholly unlike what would be expected of a Borussia Dortmund counter.
Build Up Phase
Against PAOK, Benfica displayed a very patient build up approach when moving out from their defensive third. The fullbacks would push up in advance of the centerbacks, who spread far apart and allowed space for Andre Gomes to drop in between them to help keep possession. Initially, Benfica would look to advance the ball forward on the flanks looking to get it out to the fullbacks, who both completed a high percentage of passes by either moving the ball further forward when possible or moving it back to Gomes or the other holder, Amorim, or the centerbacks, who would switch the play to the other flank and look to move forward from there. The rightback, Maxi Pereira completed 41 of 48 passes, 85% and his partner at leftback, Silvio, likewise completed 47 of 53 passes an 89% completion rate.
If they found it not possible to move possession forward via the flanks they would look to play balls up to Cardozo and win second balls and move possession forward. Djuricic, the number ten, only attempted 21 passes, completing 18, but operated quite freely between the lines and showed a willingness to play the incisive pass to Cardozo or hit one of the widemen with a pass as well. Both defensive mids sat further back in the opponent’s half and did an excellent job of recycling possession and switching the play while at the same time being in place, along with the centerbacks, to guard against the counter attack.
The leftback Silvio showed a great ability to get on the ball in wide positions and move forward on the dribble, allowing the left mid, Gaitan to drift inside. Again, the fullbacks could push up freely as they were constantly protected by both holding midfielders.
Benfica didn’t look overly threatening but created several half chances against PAOK when the match was still 11v11(PAOK had a player sent off midway through the second half). Cardozo displayed an ability to make diagonal runs between the centerbacks looking for through balls from Djuricic, shoot from range and as a target man for crosses as well. He was nearly slipped in by Djuricic early on, flicked a header just over the bar from an incoming cross and forced a save from a well taken free kick just outside the area in the first half. He looked to be a multidimensional threat from the striker position with good support from Djuricic operating behind him.
Overall, in possession and when moving into the opponent’s final third, Benfica were able to vary their attack. They were comfortable maintaining possession, even under pressure in their defensive third, but still willing to hit a long ball towards Cardozo on occasion. Further forward, they were just as happy to whip in crosses as thread in passes to the opponent’s box and were able to play direct when winning back possession high up the pitch. They did not have a singular approach to moving forward in possession.
Defensively, they were rarely exposed when losing possession because they would put on an initial heavy press before dropping into a 4-3-1-2 and pressing just enough to deny time on the ball to PAOK in their own half and were able to get back into two banks of four when PAOK moved possession into Benfica’s half well enough to keep tight control over the central areas and leave PAOK without an obvious way forward.
If Spurs use their 4-1-4-1 system against Benfica, they will find it hard for their centerbacks to play passes and the holding midfielder can expect to be tightly covered as well. The selection of Adebayor would be useful, aside from his current excellent form, as he could drop away from Benfica’s backline and look to knock down long passes played to him from either Spurs’ fullbacks or goalkeeper for midfielders to run onto. Spurs should also look to their wide mids operating in front of Benfica’s fullbacks as outlets to move forward and beat their initial press and go directly at their backline. If Benfica are allowed to settle into a 4-4-2 defensive block they will be tougher to break down.
This also makes Tottenham going 4-4-2 an attractive option as Adebayor and Soldado could both move around and look for space so that the midfield battle can be bypassed all together and give Spurs a chance to take on Benfica higher up the pitch with at least one of their defensive mids caught out.
Spurs may well find it beneficial to play 4-4-2 at home and take the game to Benfica and then switch to the 4-1-4-1 on the return trip to Portugal. Keeping Djuricic marked tightly will be an important task, if he is allowed to run free Cardozo will cause Spurs backline problems throughout both legs of the tie. Tottenham will also have to be careful in conceding possession cheaply in their own half as Benfica will not hesitate to transition into attack quickly.
Benfica are not the toughest opponents that Spurs could have drawn as both Napoli and Juventus have also moved into the last sixteen but they are far from the easiest as well and will provide a stern test to Tottenham’s European ambitions.